DC Walls Is the City’s Best Public Art Event of the Year — And It’s About to Start

The coolest art event in the city kicks off next week

September 2, 2022 7:00 am
Mural from DC Walls 2021, artist Baghead
Mural from DC Walls 2021, artist Baghead_ photo by Ian Roche
Ian Roche

Eighteen mural artists will soon descend on Northeast DC for the public art event of the year, formerly known as Pow! Wow! Now called DC Walls, the 10-day paint-a-thon kicks off on Sept. 7 with eight local artists and 10 more coming from as far away as the Canary Islands, Istanbul, Paris and Puerto Rico. When the artists finish painting on Sept. 17, Greater NoMa will be brushed and colored anew with an eclectic array of murals on walls and buildings throughout the neighborhood. 

“It’s literally like summer camp,” says Kelly Towles, a DC-based artist and founder of the festival who’s gearing up for the event that he calls “his baby.” 

The genesis of the festival was eight years ago, when Towles was commissioned to paint a five-story building (which has since been demolished) in Navy Yard, in Southeast DC. He invited Jasper Wong to join his paint team — Towles had never met the Honolulu-based artist, but admired his work. Next thing he knew, Towles says, he was in Hawaii getting a crash course in how-to-host-a-curated-mural-arts festival alongside more than 100 artists from around the world. Wong had founded Pow! Wow! in Hawaii in 2009; there are now dozens of mural arts festivals around the world. Towles says he was a little overwhelmed with the idea of inviting 100 artists to DC. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is amazing’ [and] ‘Whoa, I don’t want to do that,’” he says. “That many artists is like chasing cats. So I pared it down to 20 artists.” The first DC edition of Pow! Wow! debuted in 2016. 

Co-hosted by NoMaBID, the annual festival hosts artists who make zero dollars painting from dawn to dusk for 10 straight days. But, says Towles, they are drawn by the freedom to paint whatever they want, as long as the design is apolitical and includes no images of violence or nudity. “It has to beautify the community. It has to be for everyone, not just for one select avenue,” Towles says he tells the artists. “And that’s a real open book for a lot of people getting to do whatever they want. I don’t tell them what to do. The person who owns the wall doesn’t tell them what to do. It’s just an open playing field.”

Most of the murals will stay up for years. One exception is the wall that runs along the Metropolitan Branch Trail (MBT), which Towles calls “a giant canvas” and which gets repainted every year, as per the agreement with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which owns the wall that borders Alethia Tanner Park. 

An exciting addition to this year’s festival is the Wendy’s at “Dave Thomas Circle,” seized by the District through eminent domain last year. The nickname for the round-about that brings drivers into and out of the District from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is a play on the name of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas and DC’s penchant for traffic circles (there are 36 of them) like Dupont Circle, Logan Circle and Thomas Circle. The intersection at First and Florida that sees 65,000 vehicles a day and has been called an “urban aneurysm,” “kind of lawless” and “a hellscape,” will get a new traffic pattern by 2028, a DC Department of Transportation overhaul expected to kick off in the early 2023 when the Wendy’s is razed. Shuttered a year ago, it has turned into an eyesore. That’s one of the reasons Towles says he wanted it for the project. Before it gets torn down, it will be wrapped in a mural designed by an artist team from LA, @travmsk.

While DC Walls has brought more than 80 murals to the area since 2016, many are no longer around. “Developers and wall owners will give us buildings that are gonna be torn down — ones they don’t really care about — as a canvas more than they’ll give us a brand-new building,” says Towles, though he adds that over the last seven years he’s never had a complaint about the final design. Towles say he does require sketches from all the artists that he can show to the wall owners. “It’s a fun process because they get nervous beforehand, but when they see the sketch they’re like, ‘Whoa, really? I’m getting that? That’s gonna be amazing!’”

And, while many artists come in knowing their work may be torn down,  there’s also the issue of graffiti. “It hurts my heart,” say Towles, who is hoping to save some of the money that’s donated for paints and supplies for a repair kitty. “Asking the artists to repair their work on their own dime is kind of insulting, so we’re hoping these funds will be available to help repair any graffitied murals,” he says.

While the artists will start painting on Sept. 7, there will be an official festival kick off at Alethia Tanner Park on Sept. 9 from 3 to 10 p.m. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun this year — I’m really excited,” says Towles, who says NPR is pitching in this year; their Washington studios are in NoMa. So too is local favorite Dolcezza, which is creating a limited-edition gelato collaboration called “The Paint Bucket.” 

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